Well, I suppose it’s about time that I started blogging again. Don’t worry; nothing environmentally bad happened between December 12 and today – or I would have caught it. Clearly.
On Thursday, I heard an interesting report on NPR. Climate scientists, such as Durwood Zaelke of the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development, and Drew Shindell of NASA have suggested a new, effective way to fight climate change: instead of attempting to create treaties or institutions to deal with carbon dioxide, we should focus on reducing our global emissions of soot and methane.
Why Soot and Methane?
The rationale behind doing so sounds very seductive: 1) both these gases have a higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide per unit weight – methane is 21 times more powerful than CO2 per weight, while soot (comprised of incompletely combusted carbon, sulfur, organic carbon and other chemicals – also known as “black carbon”) has a GWP of 680; 2) as illustrated by NASA, both methane and soot are potentially harmful to human life – soot, because it exacerbates pulmonary and cardiovascular illness, and methane, as it contributes to ground-level ozone; 3) both soot (despite its carbon component) and methane have shorter atmospheric lifetimes than CO2 – one or two decades, as opposed to hundreds of years.
Consequently, concentrating efforts on soot and methane mean you would be able to discern greater changes in atmospheric CO2e accumulation. In fact, Shindell was lead author on a paper, published in Science Magazine, that suggests focusing on these two gases would reduce the amount of global warming from the projected rate of increase by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. This is no small potatoes, considering that the margin of increase recognized by the IPCC as tolerable for human society is a 2 degree increase over current global averages. Finally, and I suspect this may be a more important development than anything else, combating soot and methane means you’re less likely to confront the industries – transport and energy – responsible for producing carbon dioxide. Methane primarily comes from agriculture and landfills, particularly in less developed countries, while it is also a byproduct of coal mining. Soot comes from biomass stoves, burning wood and dung, which again are largely used in developing countries.
So, What’s the Problem?
Not surprisingly, this idea – treating climate change by focusing on patterns of behavior that are not connected to vested industrial interests – has received a lot of vocal support, including among conservative researchers. “So rather than focusing only on carbon dioxide emissions, where we have to make a tradeoff with energy prices, this strategy focuses on ‘win-win-win’ pathways,” says Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota. “This is an important study that deserves serious consideration by policy makers as well as scientists,” says John D. Graham, former OMB head under the Bush administration.
Obviously, the proposals advanced by Shindell and his co-authors, if funded, would provide immeasurable benefits. Reduce cardiovascular illness among lower income, biomass stove-using populations; reduce ground-level ozone; mitigate short-term climate change. But, I worry that the attempt to focus on other gases may present a moral hazard, if policymakers and the public lose sight of the main problem, which remains carbon dioxide. While soot and methane are comparatively speaking, short term problems, ‘solving’ them as issues without dealing with the main driver of climate change will only postpone severe climatic problems. Recall that carbon dioxide lasts for about 100 years in the atmosphere. The catastrophic implications of global warming would thus be postponed until well after our natural lifetimes, but what about afterwards? Surely we have a moral obligation to consider future generations.
Moreover, there is something deeply unsettling about a policy approach that has implications for future obligations on lower income populations, or developing countries, while treating carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world as a fait accompli. Zaelke, who worked on the UNFCCC, said this in regards to the new study: “I mean, it’s like picking a fight with the biggest bully in the schoolyard. You know, you get your lunch money stolen, you get your pants pulled down, and you get sent home humiliated. We’ve made about that much progress with CO2.” That same article goes on to say: ” Few governments have been willing to endanger development with limits on CO2.”
First, that last sentence is misleading. The entire EU bloc has been more than willing to restrict CO2 emissions, quite sharply, and has done so even in the face of a global recession. Rather, a few (but key) governments (you know who they are from following Durban, I imagine) have refused to address CO2, leaving us all with the bag. Second, if we want to characterize CO2 as a bully, I would hope that we as a global society will eventually generate the courage and determination to confront that bully, rather than acquiescing each and every time.